As in last year’s Run, Lola, Run, which was actually made later, the German director Tom Tykwer shows in Winter Sleepers his fascination with time and chance, with the momentous consequences of quite trivial causes — and his sense of style. But this film is less laden with cinematic trickery and self-conscious cleverness than Lola and is all the better for it. It also bears a certain similarity to the great and unforgettable Dreamlife of Angels by Erick Zonca in its use of the device of a young girl in a coma who is made to stand for those ultimate things, the matters of life and death, that we keep as much as possible thrust to the periphery of our lives. Both films put in their foregrounds the relatively trivial concerns of the main characters, yet never let us forget the tremendous thing going on in the background. In this way they attempt to show us how the everyday can be touched by the infinite, both for good and ill.
Of course, Zonca does it a lot better. Tykwer’s story mainly concerns two couples living in a small Alpine ski-resort. Rebecca (Floriane Daniel) a translator of romance novels, and Marco (Heino Ferch), a ski instructor, take up residence together in the house of Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse and would-be actress who has inherited the place from an aunt. Before long, Laura meets René (Ulrich Matthes), the projectionist at the local movie house. René has been wounded in an accident with a grenade during service with the army and has lost most of his short term memory. He goes around with a Polaroid snapping pictures of the things he sees and spends his spare time pasting the photos into an album, which serves him in lieu of memory. This is itself a memorable image for the audience, though perhaps not made enough of by Tykwer — an image of life as a succession of snapshots with no way of defining the relationships between them or telling which are more and less important.
As the film opens, we see René admiring Marco’s new sports car, in which the latter has left the keys at the importunity of Rebecca, who can’t wait to get him into bed. On an impulse, René decides to jump in and take the car for a spin. At the same time we see a farmer called Theo (Josef Bierbichler) setting out in his truck, pulling a horse-trailer, for the vet’s, and assuring his little daughter that Lizzy, the horse, will be all right. When he turns his back the daughter sneaks into the trailer to ride with Lizzy to the vet. Along the icy road he meets René in Marco’s sports car, which skids out of control and buries itself in a snowdrift. Theo runs off the road and the trailer overturns. The horse has to be destroyed and his daughter, whom he did not know was in the trailer is unconscious and has to be rushed to the hospital.
René, in the snowdrift, crawls out of the car, briefly notices the overturned truck and trailer (and is seen by Theo, just regaining consciousness) and walks back to the village. Because of his short term memory loss, all record of the incident is erased from his mind. Because of the snowdrift, no one notices the other vehicle involved in the accident and Theo’s insistence that the other car ran him off the road is regarded as a figment of his imagination, an attempt on his part to evade some of the guilt for the accident which has left his daughter in a comatose state. His harping upon the other car that nobody believes in becomes his grieving, inarticulate way of insisting that the accident and, by extension, the world of mere contingency, must make sense. Marco reports his car stolen
Now the film settles down to explore the relatively trivial lives of the two couples while Theo, in the background, stews with guilt, grief and frustration over the accident. Soon, we learn, he must face the additional anxiety of trying to preserve his little farm from failure and bankruptcy. In the life of this stricken character and his family you have the material of a serious drama, but the drama is kept mostly off-stage by Tykwer. Instead, we see Laura meet René at a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which she plays the role of Blanche, and the first passages of romance between them; we see Marco and Rebecca squabbling about whether or not Marco can move in with her (he will), whether or not Rebecca will give up translating romance novels in order to become a ski-instructor like him (she won’t). Marco begins to suspect that Rebecca is interested in René. When Rebecca goes away for a few days and, simultaneously, Marco is asked to house-sit for his boss, he picks up another girl to join him in the new chalet, which has an indoor swimming pool.
Almost incidentally we learn of the death of Theo’s comatose daughter, who never regains consciousness, and his own failure as a farmer. Soon we see him and his wife and remaining daughters selling up and moving out — to an even more Spartan existence in an even more rural setting. Theo, apparently crazed by grief and disappointment goes around the village putting up handbills with a picture of the scar — in the shape of a snake — that he remembers on the head of the man who ran him off the road. His wife follows him around, taking down the papers as quickly as he can put them up. “Nobody in the whole town believes you,” she tells him. “I was ashamed. They think you won’t admit it’s your fault.”
I won’t reveal the ending in which all these seemingly unrelated events in several different lives come together in a way that would not have been possible without each chance encounter along the way. So life goes, Tykwer, shows us: we are in the hands of the most capricious fates and yet — and yet Theo is right about the other car. It is typical that the meaning of it all, insofar as there is any meaning, is left for the big, dumb, unsympathetic Marco to sum up when, dropping in on Laura at the hospital, he finds Theo’s daughter, who to him is just an anonymous child, just dead. “She looks unreal somehow,” says Marco. “I wonder if life has to be so long. Perhaps she had three good years out of ten. Have you had three good years?”
“I don’t know,” says Laura.
“I don’t know either,” Marco muses. “It depends on how you look at it.”
This is a movie about things depending on how you look at them. And your reaction to the movie itself depends, more even than is usually the case, on how you look at it. On the one hand it lacks the emotional force and the compassion of The Dreamlife of Angels; on the other hand, it makes a similar point about the way in which the important things in life can (and ultimately will) break through our determination to keep them as occupied with petty things as possible.